UPDATE 1-San Onofre license change may not increase safety risk -NRC

Wed Apr 10, 2013 7:23pm EDT

HOUSTON, April 10 (Reuters) - Nuclear regulators on Wednesday said a license request change submitted by operators of the damaged San Onofre nuclear station in California may not represent an increased safety risk, according to a release.

Southern California Edison, a unit of Edison International , seeks to amend the operating license of the San Onofre Unit 2 reactor so it can restart the unit this summer, but at a reduced operating level.

Both units at the 2,150-megawatt San Onofre nuclear station, located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, have been shut since January 2012 following a small radioactive steam leak which indicated a serious problem with accelerated degradation of tubes in the units' new steam generators.

The preliminary "no significant hazards" recommendation from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission means the reactor might be able to restart in advance of a public hearing sought by anti-nuclear groups.

The reactor can only restart if the NRC deems the unit can operate safely.

SCE submitted a license amendment request late last week as part of its effort to accelerate the restarting of San Onofre Unit 2. SCE wants to run the reactor for five months at 70 percent power, then shut it to inspect for additional tube wear.

Loss of San Onofre's output has strained southern California's power grid and state agencies are planning for a second summer without the plant.

Nuclear regulators are considering the licensing amendment along with the utility's separate restart plan. Granting of the license change will not guarantee San Onofre 2 can restart, the NRC said.

Once the NRC notice is published in the Federal Register, the public will have 30 days to file comments and 60 days to request a public hearing.

But if the NRC finalizes its "no significant hazard" finding, nuclear critics are concerned a public hearing would not be scheduled until after the reactor is restarted - if the NRC approves the utility's restart plan.

On Tuesday, two Democratic lawmakers asked the NRC to confirm that it would take no action that would lead to the restart of San Onofre before it completes its investigation and allows the opportunity for participation from the public.

In a joint letter to the NRC, Senator Barbara Boxer and Rep. Edward Markey said granting SCE's request for a declaration that the restart of the power plant at 70 percent power involves no significant hazards "would put public safety at risk."

The NRC outlined three criteria it considers for a "no significant hazard" determination.

The finding means operating the facility under the proposed amendment would not involve a significant increase in the probability of an accident previously evaluated; create the possibility of a new or different type of accident; or involve a significant reduction in a margin of safety.

SCE operates San Onofre for its owners: SCE (78.21 percent), Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric (20 percent) and the city of Riverside (1.79 percent).

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